How You Can Survive Toxic Leadership in the Workplace

It’s often said that people leave managers, not jobs. The statistics support this adage: a study by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 84% of Americans in the workforce report that poorly-trained managers add additional work and stress to their lives. Yet, despite this known fact, toxic leadership in the workplace, unfortunately, remains a pervasive issue.

A woman holds up a bottle of toxic poison

What are the traits of a toxic leader?

Toxic leaders consistently display traits that bring their team down and impede business objectives. There are many ways that 
toxic leadership behaviors might manifest, but they can usually be boiled down to three main factors:

  1. They’re arrogant. Toxic leaders don’t listen to feedback from their direct reports and assume that their perception is always the most correct. They don’t like being corrected even when they’re demonstrably wrong and will blame others for their mistakes. Often, they are narcissistic control freaks because they think their way is always best.
  2. They lack empathy. Toxic leaders view their coworkers as competitors instead of teammates and try to advance their careers by any means necessary. They will take credit for their team’s ideas and do anything to paint themselves in the best light. They also gossip, publicly embarrass their team members, and are harsh with their criticism.
  3. They’re bad at their jobs. Unsurprisingly, these toxic leadership traits make it challenging to do the job of a leader effectively. Toxic managers are almost always incompetent on top of everything else. This can lead to micromanagement, disorganization, poor communication, and a negative attitude.

Often, these toxic leadership traits can be challenging to identify right away because the leader has found a way to cloak them in charisma or the appearance of capability. Be on your guard.


How do you deal with a toxic leader?

As a leader, if you notice that you’ve hired a toxic manager, you need to address the issue before your top performers leave. Unfortunately, if you work under a toxic manager, you don’t always have that option. So instead, here are some tips for dealing with toxic leadership in the workplace.

  1. Don’t become part of the problem. Whatever you do, please don’t stoop to their level. Don’t participate in gossip or try to play games. You’ll only contribute to the toxic environment.
  2. Reframe your mindset. Although you might not like this person, try to give them the benefit of the doubt. Treat every interaction like a clean slate and try not to read too much into anything they say. Instead, assume the best and remain positive even in the face of negativity.
  3. Always keep records. Whether your toxic manager is malicious or disorganized, it’s crucial to get everything in writing when possible. Document your communications so if there’s ever a question about why you made a particular decision, you have evidence on your side.
  4. Emotionally disconnect. Many people understandably feel a deep connection to their work, but at the end of the day, your work is not your worth. Don’t take anything your manager says personally; don’t expect to be recognized for doing a good job. Instead, maintain a healthy work-life balance and rely on other sources of fulfillment.
  5. Brush up your resume. Even if you don’t intend to leave your job, knowing that you can if things get tough will give you a sense of security.

Toxic leadership doesn’t have to drive you away from a job you love. If you adjust your expectations and manage your reactions, it’s possible to outlast incompetent management. However, you shouldn’t have to suffer. Leaving can be the best option for your sanity and career if the situation becomes untenable.

If you’ve ever worked for a toxic leader, you’ll understand the importance of solid leadership techniques. As a business coach, I’m happy to share my decades of experience in leadership development. Sign up for my weekly blog articles for leadership tips and tricks delivered to your inbox.

Coach Dave

Dave Schoenbeck
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